Stroll past any establishment in Nashville, and you’ll find yourself unable to keep from tapping your feet, humming along or swaying to the twangy melodies wafting through the street, regardless of whether you like country music or not.
It’s called Music City for a reason, and music is certainly its greatest attraction.
My husband and I made our first trip to Nashville last weekend, and I must say: I have never experienced such a concentration of vocal talent anywhere else in America as I have in Nashville.
It’s not that I was surprised by the musical abilities — I’ve known that Nashville is steeped in a rich musical history that has spawned some of the greatest artists of our lifetime; it’s that I was overwhelmed by the abundance of it. Music is just ingrained in the culture. Most people here can sing or play a musical instrument because, as one Nashville native told me at a karaoke bar we visited, “it’s just what we do.”
Teeming with talent
I was humbled when, on our first night in Nashville we visited a karaoke bar called “Wannabes” on Broadway Street, since it was one of the few places that had space and seating available (most places on Broadway are overflowing with people, standing-room only). Broadway Street reminds me of Bourbon street in New Orleans, bustling with life at all hours. I am no stranger to karaoke and do not easily get stage fright, having performed music and dance since childhood. But here in Nashville, one after another people got up on stage and belted out honky tonk favorites flawlessly with their voices like velvet. Suddenly the Tennessee whiskey advertised at the bar didn’t seem like such a bad idea to calm my nerves. However, since Wannabes’ motto is “If you HAD to be good, we wouldn’t be in business”, I decided to pass on the shots and instead give karaoke my best one by delivering a performance full of gusto to make up for what I lacked in comparable skill or song selection. In the end, no one threw tomatoes for this Indian chick’s upbeat rendition of Rihanna’s “S&M,” so I’d call it a good night. (In my defense, the DJ encouraged me to go with something upbeat and not necessarily country, so I took his suggestion at face value.)
Outside of amateur karaoke, live musical performances should be the main reason anyone visits Nashville, but it doesn’t have to the be the only one. We spent three days touring Nashville’s neighborhoods, and here’s what we enjoyed the most.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to catch good music in this city, because great live performances are pervasive (and free!), especially on Broadway Street. I’d recommend catching live artists at The Stage or Famous Saloon which featured some of the best performances we saw in terms of talent, energy and a modern country feel. The Stage has multiple levels with different musicians on each level and performing at staggered times, so no matter what time you show up, there’s bound to be some show going on. A country band we caught at The Stage had me shuffling about on my feet.
When we visited Famous Saloon on our last night in Nashville, we were treated to the vocal performance of a girl with a guitar. Her voice was powerful and filled the room. but what I loved most was how simple and unadulterated the whole setup was: just a girl and her guitar singing acoustic covers, but owning them like a boss.
We tried several restaurants across various Nashville neighborhoods, and I’d say Sky Blue Cafe and the Family Wash/Garage Coffee in East Nashville were our favorites. Our Airbnb was in East Nashville which made these convenient choices, but even compared to the eateries we tried in the Gulch and Downtown, these two stood out because the food was tasty and the feel, unique.
We had lunch at the Family Wash on our second day in Nashville when we came back from a day trip to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. We were famished, and Family Wash touted a versatile menu. The food ended up being tastier than some of the other places in Nashville, but still not spectacular. However, we primarily gave this place points because it’s got a laid back atmosphere as it’s housed in what used to be a laundromat, and thus has a cool retro vibe. In the evenings, like most places in Nashville, it hosts live music.
The food at Sky Blue Cafe on the other hand is totally worth the hours you wait to be seated.
On our last day in Nashville, which was the Memorial Day holiday, many restaurants were closed. We went to Sky Blue Cafe because 1) its menu looked delicious and diverse and 2) it was one of very few places open. I don’t regret the decision at all.
We waited for 1.5 hours before we got a table, but the restaurant served free coffee for people waiting. When we were finally seated, we shamelessly carbed out. I ordered the heart-stopping Armadillo sandwich: a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich with creamy pesto, bell peppers and portobello mushroom, and which, I kid you not, is toasted with a colby jack cheese exterior. It was amazing.
When my husband took a bite of my sandwich, and said “Mmmmm. I really like that interesting crust they have on the outside,” he was fooling no one. He and I both knew what the “interesting” crust was because it was heaven. It was cheese.
He ordered the brie-stuffed french toast and side of chili tots, which were equally exquisite. (The chili is vegan!)
For me, the food in Nashville, particularly on Broadway was not so impressive, so instead, I’ll recommend some of these establishments downtown for their music paired with cocktails. The Stillery had an interesting vibe, and serves food such as burgers and brick-oven pizzas which my husband tried, though they are best known for signature cocktails served out of mason jars.
I’d also recommend Merchants, for its ambiance and location. Situated directly across the The Stage, you can opt for “casual” dining on the patio, and this way, you’ll be able to hear all of the great live music coming from The Stage, from the comfort of the more posh eatery across the street while sipping a classic old fashioned.
The Parthenon & Centennial Park
At first when I researched Nashville attractions, I thought the Parthenon might be a pretty tacky thing to visit in a southern American city. I was hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be another Helen, Georgia fiasco.
However, this building commands attention in the city’s Centennial Park, as it is the world’s only full-scale replica of the original in Athens, Greece. In fact, Nashville, while known as “Music City”, is also referred to as the “Athens of the South” as several buildings in the area have borrowed from the Greek revival style. Throughout our visit, we caught references to Greek culture, mythology and architectural influence present in Nashville, though I’m still not quite sure that explains all the Greek restaurants in East Nashville.
This is the historic home of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president. The museum at the front of this property is packed with interesting information and stories about “the people’s president”, including celebrating Jackson’s military prowess, particularly his victories in the War of 1812. The museum also tells the story of how the general fell in love with a married woman and they eventually got married after she filed for divorce from her first husband. From that moment on their love story was one cast in a scandalous light, but for which they fought and continued to stand by each other’s side. To this day they are laid to rest together in a tomb on the grounds of the Hermitage, here in Tennessee.
For me this was one of the most interesting things we did in Nashville because it contained so much historic information and artifacts. Much of the original structure and furnishings have been kept intact. I’m always amazed at how historic sites like this have been preserved and how they give us a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of people who stood in those very rooms decades, scores or centuries ago. Guides told us the the original wallpaper we saw in the house, 180 years old, remains plastered to its interiors to this day.
Music City Center & Country Music Hall of Fame
I wouldn’t consider Nashville a very big city. We walked through much of the Gulch, Music Row, and downtown area quickly and easily on Day 2. While walking through the city, we passed by one of the most visually interesting buildings, the Music City Center, which is located right next the Country Music Hall of Fame (of which we could only identify a handful of members). This building is hard to miss: it’s a long structure resembling the shape of a guitar on its side. Encompassing 2.1 million square feet, this convention center is meant to host all kinds of events in the heart of Nashville’s downtown.
Cumberland River Pedestrian Bridge
This walkway connecting East Nashville to Downtown offers beautiful views of the city along Cumberland River. For us, riding an Uber from our East Nashville accommodations to the Cumberland Park was economical and efficient. We would get dropped off at Cumberland Park and simply walked across the bridge to get to downtown within a few minutes.
It also proved to be picturesque, especially on our second night when the skies cleared and the illuminated Nashville skyline reflected off the water.
Wish We’d Done It
Glaringly absent from this list are eating famous Nashville hot chicken and catching a show at the Grand Ole Opry.
I wish we had pre-booked a show at the Grand Ole Opry.
However, since neither of us is a country music enthusiast, we didn’t plan ahead to get tickets for a show at the Opry, thinking it wouldn’t be worth it for us. In retrospect, I wish we had, since I later found that I had come to enjoy and appreciate country music and because it would have been a great way to see the inside of the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry is a country music stage concert, said to have “made country music famous,” and all the great country music artists from Dolly Parton to Carrie Underwood have performed here as Opry members.
As for the hot chicken, so many people told us to try Nashville’s hot chicken, especially at Hattie B’s. I suggested this to my husband as well, since he’s the omnivore among us, but he didn’t seem very enthusiastic for it so we never got to it. I’m pretty sure one influencing factor was that he preferred to find a restaurant where we both could eat together and which also served vegetarian options. If we’re ever in Nashville again, we’ll be sure to stop by Hattie B’s.
Needless to say, there are other attractions to check out if you visit Nashville. Definitely go for the music, but stay for so much more.